Is CI a generalist or specialist role?

“Mile wide and an inch deep” is something that I catch myself saying more times than I care to admit. It stems from the fact that I believe I know a little about most competitors in my market (enough to be dangerous) but not absolutely everything about their technical or business strategies.

Would I call myself a generalist though? In the harsh light of day, I would have to admit – in the realm of CI, I am a generalist. I cover multiple markets, multiple types of analysis and tend to be a jack of all trades. I pride myself in being able to jump into a new technology market or competitor and come up with insight. However, in the realm of marketing, I’m a specialist. The mile wide and inch deep argument is a little like an iceberg. While I may be covering a large number of competitors, touching and interacting with several business groups and stakeholders, at the core I bring specialized CI skills to the table. Here’s a very top-line explanation of what I mean.


There’s a lot of arguments for and against being a generalist and I’m none the wiser as to what’s the best positioning for a CI professional. Two interesting takes on the argument come from Pras Sarkar, from Yahoo! Research and Seth Godin

Five key tips on being a brilliant generalist according to Pras:

  1. Stay up-to-date with your area of generalization
  2. Know what to explore and what to ignore
  3. Be critical of new technologies
  4. Visualize the results of all new pursuits and endeavors
  5. Don’t over-generalize

While Seth swings the opposite way, stating:

“When choice is limited, I want a generalist. When selection is difficult, a jack of all trades is just fine. But whenever possible, please bring me a brilliant specialist.”

I tend to side with Seth on this in my case. Proactively positioning myself as a CI Specialist, rather than a generalist. Regardless of what the mile wide part is, the deeper value is the core CI principles, techniques and skills I can bring to a discussion or team. However, Pras’ advice makes a lot of sense for the “mile wide” portion. Using his framework to assess and sanity check what competitors and what markets I need to keep in my periphery.

So how do you position yourself?



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